Commentary

BC's Mark Herzlich off to strong start

Boston College senior linebacker making strides in return to Eagles

Updated: September 9, 2010, 1:22 AM ET
By Jack McCluskey | Special to ESPNBoston.com

NEWTON, Mass. -- Through it all, it's where he hoped he would be again.

Leading the Boston College players out of the tunnel and onto the field; firing up the Superfan student section; starting at his familiar strongside linebacker position.

Mark Herzlich did those things for the Eagles for the first time in 612 days on Saturday. And though the performance wasn't exactly vintage, it certainly wasn't bad, either, considering the circumstances.

[+] EnlargeMark Herzlich
Elsa/Getty ImagesMark Herzlich played in his first game for Boston College since 2008 last Saturday.

Playing 31 snaps, Herzlich made five tackles -- three solo -- in BC's 38-20 win over Weber State.

Eighty-seven weeks after he was forced to the sidelines after being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma -- a rare type of bone cancer -- and enduring the subsequent treatment, which included chemotherapy and, once he was cancer free, surgery to insert a titanium rod in his left femur, the senior was back where he wanted to be: playing football on the turf at Alumni Stadium.

Asked for his assessment of his return, Herzlich was blunt.

"Actually, watching film, I was better than I thought I was," he said, drawing laughs from reporters before practice Wednesday.

Frank Spaziani didn't mince words, either, when asked to evaluate Herzlich's return.

"In a lot of ways, it was spectacular, really," the second-year head coach said, pointing out that Herzlich had only three or four practices to get ready for the game after the long layoff.

Though he had been on track to start the season on time, Herzlich suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in a drill prior to training camp. He returned to practice just in time to prepare, albeit briefly, for Weber State.

"I mean, he obviously wasn't the Mark that we remember, but that doesn't mean he can't be," Spaziani said. "I mean just the fact that he was able to go out there for 25 or so plays after three or four days of practice and not having played for two years, it's a really great story, I think."

Herzlich said he felt fine physically after the Weber State game and that he's become more comfortable with the football aspects in practice this week. He said he didn't think his comeback would be gradual.

"I'm just jumping back in," Herzlich said. "I'll be limited by the coaches a little bit, limited by my conditioning a little bit. But it's not like I'm pulling myself out of practice saying, 'I'm gonna take a little break here.' I just want to play as much as I can right now."

Getting as many reps as possible is important because there's definitely some rust to knock off.

"Even yesterday at practice, [linebackers coach Bill] McGovern had to remind me to do stuff that used to be natural," Herzlich said.

Herzlich returns to what appears to be a stacked linebacking corps, which includes senior Mike Morrissey and sophomore Luke Kuechly. Kuechly was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year as a freshman when filling in for Herzlich, the 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

"I think we should be really good," Herzlich said. "Obviously, I don't think Luke had his best game last game [on Saturday], but he had 10 tackles and he was getting double-digits all the time. He obviously needs to play better, and I think we all need to play better at linebacker."

Actually, Kuechly collected 11 tackles on Saturday, his 10th straight game with 10 or more tackles dating back to last season, the longest such streak in the country. He also had half a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery.

When the film rolled, though, Herzlich said it was clear to all watching that there's room for improvement across the board on defense.

"I thought we played hard," Herzlich said. "On their first couple drives we played really stout. Then I don't know if we got a little tired, but I think everybody played a little softer for a little bit. And then kind of picked it up at the end. So we have to kinda stay more consistent throughout.

"That's the biggest thing for our team -- when we play to our potential, we can be great. But when we don't for a series or two that's when we get in trouble."

And though the Eagles were able to weather the storm against Weber State, they'd rather not sail into those troubled waters against Kent State this weekend. The Golden Flashes are coming off a 41-10 thrashing of Murray State.

This Kent State team is a little different than the one Herzlich last played.

"When I played them in 2008 with [teammates] B.J. [Raji] and Ron [Brace], they had a pretty good quarterback named Julian Edelman," Herzlich said, referring to the Kent State QB turned New England Patriots receiver. "So they actually played really well, but this quarterback now broke all their freshman passing records."

Current Golden Flashes signal-caller Spencer Keith set freshman records last season for total passing yards (2,147) and touchdowns (14) despite starting only seven games. He threw for 275 yards and three scores on Saturday, and he figures to be a handful for the Eagles.

"They're more accurate, they're sharper and they've got some good backs back so they're gonna be a good team," Herzlich said.

And though Herzlich and Spaziani both said they haven't discussed how much playing time Herzlich will get this week, just being back on the field -- in practice and in games -- is enough for now.

"Basically, from the beginning, I just wanted to play again," Herzlich said. "So I'm happy with where I am."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com.

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